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Before Primaries, Party Elites Played Larger Role In Picking Nominees


Brokered conventions are an extinct species. They date back to the days before a smoke-filled room was a presumed violation of local health codes, when party bosses actually deserved that title and could exercise much control over the party's choice of a candidate. For decades, we've seen primaries and caucuses replace most of all that with a process based on mass participation.

But this year may be a throwback. Republicans are contemplating an outsize convention role for a party establishment that so far has been ineffectual this year. And Democrats are seeing a decisive role played by superdelegates, people unbound by primary votes. Well, Elaine Kamarck of The Brookings Institution, who happens to be a pro-Hillary Clinton superdelegate, has written about how our parties pick their nominees in a book called "Primary Politics." And she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ELAINE KAMARCK: Thank you for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that over recent decades candidate selection has gotten more and more in line with primary and caucus results than it once was?

KAMARCK: Oh, very much so. The appearance of binding primaries are the result of a set of reforms that took place in the Democratic Party between 1968 to 1972 and kind of inadvertently reformed the Republican Party as well.

SIEGEL: Past primary seasons have included people who did very well with the voters in those contests but didn't get nominated.

KAMARCK: In fact, they hardly participated in the process. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey was the nominee of the Democratic Party. He didn't enter one single primary. Jack Kennedy, in 1960, only entered primaries for the purpose of proving to the party leaders that he could win Protestant votes. Most of our presidents prior to 1972 were nominated in conventions that consisted solely of superdelegates.

SIEGEL: Do you think it's possible that it might be turning around, we might be seeing a bit of a retreat and back door - the party organization taking a more upfront public role and primaries and caucuses being a bit more advisory in nature?

KAMARCK: I think we might see that. This is the first time that someone seems close to capturing a nomination who most people think is completely unsuited to be president.

SIEGEL: Donald Trump you're talking about.

KAMARCK: Yes. That, I think, has gotten people to think a lot about the virtues of the old-fashioned system. And let me give you a short example. Governor Lawrence of Pennsylvania in 1960 controlled the Pennsylvania delegation. Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, his campaign had to go to Governor Lawrence and sit down in one of those apocryphal smoke-filled rooms and say, look, Jack should be the nominee of the Democratic Party.

Now, imagine that conversation with Donald Trump. I'm going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. Governor Lawrence would look at him and say, what are you talking about? The people who used to decide nominations had a sense of what it took to govern.

SIEGEL: But the public component depends on a certain amount of taking the public's role seriously. What do you say to somebody who spent three hours in a caucus in Dubuque a few months ago and says why was I doing that if not to have my voice counted toward who would become the nominee?

KAMARCK: Well, I think because it is a mixed system and also things change as the system goes on. So a delegate, say, in Cleveland in July at the Republican convention who doesn't vote for the person who won their caucus or their district or their state has to go home and say, I didn't do that and here's why - what was true in January was not true in July and that they made a good decision.

SIEGEL: Elaine Kamarck of The Brookings Institution and author of "Primary Politics" and superdelegate for Hillary Clinton this year, thanks for talking with us.

KAMARCK: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.